The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


Rating: 4/5

I tried to read The Bell Jar in high school, but didn’t get very far. I had just finished reading (and loved) Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and so I thought I would like The Bell Jar, but I couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t understand what made a person like Esther Greenwood tick. She kept doing things that to high school me seemed like really obvious bad ideas, like accept an invitation to drink with a crowd of really sketchy-looking guys or eat seafood that’s been sitting under hot lights for a couple of hours. Adult me knows that these kinds of decisions are part peer pressure, part curiosity, and part nihilism. I also just didn’t understand what Plath was trying to do by showing the less glamorous side of being a young adult, but now I kind of get it. I think this is a book that’s specifically about young adult angst, so high school kids might find it hard to relate.

Unlike Girl, Interrupted, The Bell Jar isn’t just a book about depression, it’s also about making important adult decisions about sex and careers. Esther Greenwood’s depression stems from her weighing her life options and being unable to decide because to choose any one option, she’d have to give something else up. She could pursue a family, but she’d have to give up exciting affairs. She could pursue exciting affairs, but she’d have to give up a sense of home and continuing emotional support. She could try for a professional career in her field, but she’s worried she’s not talented or motivated enough to succeed. She could go for an easy 9-to-5 job with little responsibility, but it’s so boring she can’t focus. Esther is caught in the middle: she’s not tough enough to claw her way to the top of the field she loves, but she’s too much in love with literature to throw her pride away and take a secure boring job. Besides, everything takes some kind of effort, and Esther’s lazy af.

Well, that might not be fair to say… what looks like laziness is actually a combination of two things: passion for literature (the other side of the coin being apathy towards anything that’s not literature), and crushing depression. After completing a disappointing internship at a fashion magazine in New York City, Esther comes home to boring old suburbia. Every morning, she wakes up to the noise of Dodo Conway taking her kids for a walk. Esther finds this version of bovine motherhood repellent, but she’s also envious of the simplicity of that life. She finds everything about her hometown annoying, including her mother’s porcine snoring (Plath’s mother hated this book… she thought it was very rude to everyone Plath semi-autobiographically included in it).

In her hometown, Esther feels isolated and stuck. She can’t focus on either her college thesis or learning shorthand: when she tries, the words blur on the page. She continues to stress out about what she will do in the future, and gets horrible insomnia where she can’t sleep for days. The insomnia, I think, is what sets her over the edge and compels her to attempt suicide. Sleep is like a little death. It allows you to rest and reset your brain, but more it can also help satiate that craving for oblivion that people with depression feel.

The bell jar metaphor for Esther’s depression is a little obscure, so let me say a word about that: a bell jar used to be used pretty often in science classes as a rudimentary vacuum. It’s not a perfect seal, but it can take most of the air out of something—enough to preserve taxidermy or stop an alarm clock from ringing (no air to carry sound). The metaphor symbolizes the way her depression keeps her from participating in life, even as she can see it going on around her through the glass. It also suggests that her depression is, in a way, preserving her by protecting her from things that could disappoint her, like friendship, love, or giving her all for something.

It may be that Esther is more afraid of living than she is of dying. Death is certain, life is uncertain. Life is painful, death is devoid of feeling. Esther’s life has a fair amount of pain: her father died when she was young, she was almost raped when she was an intern in New York, and everything disappoints her. She’s not feeling the glamour of the city, suburban life leaves her unsatisfied. She doesn’t have any important connections with other people because she’s too shy to be comfortable with people she admires, but she’s too restless to fit in with people who are too basic. But more than anything, she’s worried that she can’t live up to the high expectations she sets for herself, which prevent her from doing something simpler and more certain than starting a writing/literary career.

She’s caught in the middle and needs to make a choice between high and low paths, but her abilities are right in the middle too, so it’s not easy. High risk, high reward, or low risk, low reward? The question is, does she believe that she can make it if she chooses the high path? If the answer is no, can she stomach the low path? If she’s too hesitant to try the high path and she can’t stomach the low path… then she’s eternally stuck. But maybe if she tried for the high path and got rejected, then she could accept the low path with grace. So, perhaps that’s the answer… unless rejection from the high path would just break her.

Something that’s helped me deal with anxiety is imagining the worst happening and everything being alright. I used to be afraid of throwing up on planes but whenever I get that anxiety I just mentally walk through throwing up, and cleaning it up, and kind of explaining it to everyone, and it not being a big deal. Maybe it would help her to go through the process of failing and dealing with failure in her head before she can get the guts to attempt success. But the consequences of failing at life are a lot more dire and hard to predict than failing at something small, and might even lead to death. So maybe her predilection to suicide is a symptom of an incomplete process of becoming casually acquainted with failure. Maybe her fear is strengthened by the fact that she doesn’t know exactly what failure would look and feel like. H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

So, there’s no really easy answers to the question of what to do with your life, because until you do it it’s a complete unknown. You can gain some insight by looking at the examples set by people who took a similar path, but everyone’s life is so different you can’t be assured of the same outcome. When you choose your future, you have to make an important decision on limited information—and the clock is ticking, so if you don’t act, you will be defined by your inaction. It can be enough to drive someone mad.

Well, I hope this was enlightening. I’m still in that early-20s (or mid-20s, eek!) struggle to define myself, so I don’t have all the answers… this review took a really really long time to write and involved a couple false starts (and I didn’t even get to the great quotations in this book about medicine and sexism, but I wanted this to be concise), so I hope you enjoyed it! And let me know what you think… did you ever have to make an life-changing decision based on limited information? How did you decide, and how do you feel about that decision now?


3 thoughts on “The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. Thank you for this review! I too tried to read this book in high school but back then I found it really boring…mainly because it wasn’t a story I could, vicariously, feel or relate to. Because of this post, I feel I should try reading this book in the future, when I’m 25 or so, so that I can better understand it from a maturer stand point.
    Thank you, once again, for this lovely post ! :)

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m glad I’m not the only one. I think in high school I really didn’t want to believe anything too bad about being 20-something since I wanted to stay, you know, hopeful. I ended up very different from Esther relationship-wise (I’m married) but in the same boat in terms of career (I studied English). It’ll be interesting to see which parts you relate to when you’re 25!

      • Yes!! I understand that part of wanting to be hopeful. It is anyway too dark a novel to spend high school reading :P
        I’m happy for your experience relative to the book! I hope mine has a happy note to it too! :)

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